CRTC hearing will look at educational aspect of Oprah Winfrey Network in Canada

The federal broadcast regulator is taking on television queen Oprah Winfrey with a hearing into whether her Canadian network’s programming fit the channel’s educational mandate.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission will hold a hearing next Tuesday to determine whether the Oprah Winfrey Network Canada’s shows —from “Dr. Phil” to “In the Bedroom with Dr. Laura Berman” — are educational enough to meet licensing requirements.

Nothing in OWN’s licensing requirements prevents educational content from being “entertaining and engaging,” said Corus Entertainment Inc., which holds the licence for the channel in Canada.

“It bears repeating that OWN represents a brand that is all about education and self-improvement,” Sylvie Courtemanche, Corus vice-president of government relations, said in a recent letter to the CRTC.

The CRTC could insist on changes to OWN programming, request it apply for different operating licence and, in a worst case scenario, could pull its licence, possibly jeopardizing the specialty cable channel’s operation.

Almost a dozen interveners will speak at the hearing in Gatineau, Que., with a number submitting briefs in favour of OWN’s programming. Celebrity Oprah Winfrey is not on the list.

The challenge facing OWN is that it used to be the Canadian Learning Television channel when its licence was originally granted by the CRTC. The channel was rebranded as VIVA, a women’s entertainment channel and then rebranded again as Oprah Winfrey Network in March 2011 by Corus (TSX:CJR.B).

The CRTC says OWN is required to honour the original licensing agreement and provide formal and informal educational programs that generally focus on adult education.

“The commission found that while OWN’s programming was focused on ‘enhancement programming,’ it did not provide basic adult education, job development skills or professional development as reflected in its nature of service definition,” the CRTC said in its notice about the hearing.

Other shows on OWN include: “Oprah Presents: Master Class,” “Dr. Oz,” “Healthy Gourmet” and “Cristina Ferrare’s Big Bowl Of Love.”

For its part, Corus said it’s making changes to Oprah Winfrey Network’s programming to meet licensing requirements.

Corus said it has several new series planned that are educational.

“E-Commerce Done Right” will be a weekly series that covers the basics on building an online business and “The Jobseekers Guide to Career Happiness” will focus on finding and keep a job. “Finance for Everyone” and “The History of Canadian Art” are also in the works.

“They are all supported by an online component that will provide true learning and instructional opportunities for the viewers,” Corus’s Courtemanche said in her letter to the CRTC.

Lynn Booth, chief executive of Make Believe Media Inc., said she produces the documentary series called “The Devil You Know” for OWN Canada.

OWN offers viewers and Canadian producers the “unique opportunity for educational, informative and entertaining programming,” Booth said in a submission to the CRTC.

In a submission against OWN, interveners Bazara Canning and Julia Nariman said OWN continues to take advantage of and ignore the guidelines it must follow.

“As any other Canadian network, OWN must comply to their nature of service in order to stop the threat of a further decrease of program diversity,” they said in their CRTC submission.

The CRTC recently killed the $3.4 billion friendly takeover deal by Bell to acquire Astral Media, saying it wasn’t in the best interests of Canadians.